An Athlete’s Lesson In Self-Talk


It looks pretty, but it's not great to run in!

It looks pretty, but it’s not great to run in!

I have been struggling a great deal with my running lately. I had such high hopes, at the beginning of this year, that I would be able to stick to the training schedule I had set for myself – a schedule that was demanding but certainly within my capability.

I tell myself that the main reason for my struggling of late has been the weather, and it is true that Mother Nature has not been on my side. Temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius, snow and ice have combined to make running conditions very difficult. I have gotten around it to an extent by going to the gym and running on the treadmill. Like most runners, I intensely dislike the treadmill, but it is better than nothing.

Still, I have to be honest with myself and ask the question: to what extent have I been using the weather as an excuse? Yes, it’s been hard and I am sick to death of the treadmill. To my credit, I have not missed any of my speed training sessions. But I have missed two of my long runs, in two consecutive weeks. On both occasions, I had the opportunity to make up the run the following day, and I didn’t. Out of the four days – two Sundays and two Mondays – I can only claim prohibitively bad weather on one of them.

The truth is that in recent weeks, I have been walloped with depression. Along with depression comes low self-esteem and inevitably, negative self-talk. I’ve been telling myself that I’m just not good at anything, and I’ve been fulfilling my own words. This negativity has touched every area of my life, without me even realising it.

I got a bit of a wake-up call yesterday. I decided that, snow be damned, I was going out for my long run. I was quite excited as I dug out my winter running gear and put it on: it felt good to be doing something positive instead of making excuses.

Before I’d even run a block, I knew I was in trouble. My breathing was laboured and I was struggling to find any kind of rhythm. To be fair, the conditions weren’t great. It was snowing, and the ground felt all sludgy. Telling myself that this was just a part of winter running in Canada, I trudged on gamely.

I managed about three kilometres before giving up. I kept slipping in the snow, and I just didn’t feel that I was in good enough shape to last for 18K. Bailing on the run was the right thing to do from a safety point of view. If I had continued, there was an excellent chance that I would have turned an ankle. Knowing that didn’t make me feel better, though. I felt that I was failing as a runner.

As I spent the afternoon brooding over how hard it had been for me to run those three kilometres, I thought of how poor my diet has been lately. I have been doing what I usually do when depressed: eating very little, and eating absolute junk on the occasions when I do eat. It’s no wonder that running has been such a challenge, that yesterday’s short distance proved to be too much for me. I haven’t exactly been fueling my body properly.

These thoughts were swilling around my head throughout the afternoon. I told myself that of course nutrition has been a problem. I’m a person who has been going through depression, and I have a messed-up relationship with food at the best of times.

You’re an athlete, piped up a little voice in my head, out of nowhere. Eat like one.

Well. That shut the negative part of me up. It derailed a train of thought that badly needed to be derailed. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard that little voice, the one that has confidence in what I can do. That little voice, in addition to reminding me that I am, in fact, an athlete, made me realise just how unkind I’ve been to myself lately.

In a sudden flurry of activity, I attacked my fridge, throwing out junk and old leftovers, getting rid of vegetables that I had bought and let go bad. And then, armed with a shopping list containing healthy foods, I corralled my family and dragged them to the grocery store with me.

Last night I cooked a healthy meal with a touch of carbo-loading. I ate it and went to bed feeling better than I have in ages. When I woke up this morning, I had peanut butter toast instead of breakfasting solely on endless cups of coffee. And then, once I had packed the kids and the husband off to school and work, I went for a run.

It was hard going. For about ninety percent of the time, I was running on snowy sidewalks and streets that hadn’t been shoveled or plowed. In addition to running, I had to work hard to keep my balance, and I had to push off from a slippery, slushy surface. I worked muscles that I didn’t even know I had, and the last couple of kilometres were excruciatingly difficult.

But I did it. I finished 18K.

Because I am an athlete.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit to the author.


Book Review: The Art of Running Faster (Julian Goater, Don Melvin)

When I was given the opportunity to review The Art of Running Faster by Julian Goater and Don Melvin, I was hesitant. Although I have a passion for running and am on a permanent quest to be better at it, I have tended to find books about running to be a little dry. The books have contained good factual information, but they don’t make for easy reading.

Two pages into this book, however, I was hooked. Julian Goater, the primary author, is a former elite runner from England. The advice he offers in The Art of Running Faster is liberally interspersed with anecdotes from his competition days. He gives lively accounts of races that he and his contemporaries took part in: the book artfully combines instruction with storytelling.

Goater manages to give solid advice in easy-to-understand language without talking down to his audience. He strikes a tone that is authoritative yet conversational, and while the book does seem to be geared more towards competitive athletes, there is plenty of advice for runners of all levels.

A book like this one has to meet two basic criteria in order for it to be deemed a success. First, it has engage the reader and hold his or her interest. Second, the reader has to be able to follow the advice between the covers and judge whether or not it works.

The authors have unquestionably succeeded on the first count. The material is clearly presented, the topics are covered in a way that is both informative and entertaining, and each chapter concludes with a nifty point form summary of the main topics covered.

With the first criteria met, all I had to do was test out the content of the book. In doing so, I discovered three things:

1) The advice is clearly laid out and not couched in theoretical language. Julian Goater tells runners exactly what steps to follow in order to improve things like  form and hill running.
2) I didn’t have to get through most of the book before finding advice that I could act on. I was able to practice techniques I read about from the very first chapter.
3) The advice actually works. Since reading the book and using it to change various aspects of the way I run, my average long run training pace has improved by about thirty seconds per kilometre and I am no longer completely intimidated by monster hills.

This book has earned a permanent home on the “frequently read” section of my bookshelf. I have a feeling that I will read it many times, and each time I will get something new out of it.

In spite of its title, The Art of Running Faster is not only about becoming a faster runner. It is about becoming a better runner.

(Review copy and image of book cover kindly supplied by Human Kinetics)



The Amazing Race: South African Edition

I developed a love of running when I was a teenager, years before I started to actually run. The running events were always my favourites in the Summer Olympics, and along with the rest of South Africa, I whooped and hollered and jumped up and down as Josia Thugwane won the marathon in the 1996 Olympics, mere months after being shot during a carjacking.

My Dad and I had a ritual that took place once a year, at the end of May. The ritual went something like this:

I am woken by Dad gently shaking my shoulder and placing a mug of coffee down on my nightstand. It is early in the morning – so early that it is still dark out. Despite the fact that I have the option to sleep – it is a statutory holiday – I choose instead to get up. Yawning and rubbing my eyes, I carry my coffee into the living room, where Dad is already sitting down and the TV is already on.

The TV screen is filled with thousands upon thousands of runners wearing race numbers, milling around at the starting line of South Africa’s greatest race. These runners have worked hard, trained hard to get here. They have a gruelling day ahead of them. The energy at the start line is so intense that it filters out of the TV and reaches me and Dad. We are literally sitting on the edges of our seats, all trace of sleepiness gone from both of us, as we make small talk about the runners.

“I don’t know if Fordyce has it in him to win this year,” says Dad.

I look at him, aghast. Bruce Fordyce always wins. The man is virtually a mascot for the race. How can he not win? Dad has a point, though. We keep seeing footage of him continually stretching out a calf muscle, as if it is troubling him.

All of a sudden, we hear the strains of Chariots of Fire coming from the TV. The runners, who only moments ago were a somewhat chaotic crowd, have arranged themselves into an organized pack. They are ready, they are focused, they have only one thing on their minds, and that is the finish line and how they will get there.

Chariots of Fire comes to an end, there is an excruciating pause, and then the gun goes off. And with that, South Africa’s greatest race – the Comrades Marathon – is underway.

The Comrades Marathon, a 90km event not for the faint of heart, has a long and illustrious history. It comes from noble beginnings: it was first organized by a World War I veteran to honour the memories of South African soldiers who had died during the war. A prime goal of the race, in addition to honouring the war dead, was (still is) to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”.

The course alternates every year – “up” runs start in Durban, “down” runs start in Pietermaritzburg. Runners have twelve hours to complete the race, and they have to reach predetermined points along the course within certain times in order to be eligible to continue.

Every year when the Comrades was on, Dad and I would park ourselves in front of the TV and watch the action unfold. Because contrary to what many might think, it’s not just a bunch of people running all day. There is a lot of drama and excitement that goes on. You see many, many aspects of the human spirit – both heartbreaking and uplifting.

Running is, in many ways, a metaphor for life. The Comrades Marathon especially so. The frontrunners in any race get a lot of coverage as spectators and TV viewers anxiously wait to see who will win. In this race, though, it’s not just elite athletes. Everyone is a star. Every runner is a hero – even the ones who have to suffer the heartbreak of not finishing the race.

When I finally started running at the age of 26, I knew that I wanted to be like a Comrades runner. Not in terms of form or distance or speed. It is highly unlikely that I will ever actually run the Comrades myself.

No, it was other characteristics of these athletes that I aspired to: the mental strength, the determination, the courage, the fortitude to reach out and help a struggling athlete, the sheer grit to keep going no matter what.

I wanted to be like a Comrades runner in terms of spirit.

And that is still what I strive for, not only in my running, but in my life.